This morning I woke up early and decided it was such a beautiful day that I’d play hooky from the story I’m supposed to write and head down to Chinatown. I always like to go to the Mayahana Buddhist Temple when I’m that far south. I’m not a Buddhist, but I find the temple comforting and beautiful, and when I go inside during the weekdays I’m usually one of three or so people. The temple sits at the mouth of the Manhattan Bridge right off of Canal Street. Walk into the front atrium, and there are two small shrines of different deities. Each is surrounded by baskets of fruit, oranges being the most common offering. There are two red cushions in front of each alter where the devout bow and pray. They make hand gestures, waving the incense that burns, or the spirit, through their hair. In the middle of the room and throughout the whole of the temple there are podiums whose purpose is to collect donations. Give a dollar, take a fortune.
When you step into the main room, you are transported into China. Monks in saffron robes play drums with sticks; elderly ladies line the walls, chit chatting despite the “Please Keep Noble Silence” sign. There are antique prints, framed in plastic, that wrap around the entirety of the room, telling the story of Buddha, from his beginning as Siddhartha, to the end of his life when he achieved enlightenment. But the thing that steals the show is Buddha himself. He stands golden at 16 feet tall, surrounded by oranges, and by ornate pedestals of brass lotus flowers that shine like the sun.
The first time I entered the main room with my, at the time, 5 year old son Jamie, he observed a young woman at prayer below the mammoth Buddha. She kneeled on a red cushion, and then lay prostrate on the ground. When she stood up to leave, Jamie stepped into her place with confidence. The old Chinese ladies chit chatting along the side of the temple paused to watch as my blonde haired, blue eyed kid waved his hands into the air, dispersing the incense around him. They watched as he lied down on the floor, his forehead touching the tile. Mortified by his devout offerings, I felt the first stirrings of independence twist away from our connection. He was doing his own thing, and in that moment, we were gone to him.
“I want to give the Buddha big respect,” Jamie later told my mother, a few months after that first visit, as we strolled down Mott Street. I’d taken him and my mother and stepdad down to Chinatown for the afternoon to introduce them to our usual weekend round of soup dumplings, bubble tea, and the Chinatown playground. Jamie loves the fortunes. I always give him a dollar to drop into the podium, and he always fishes around the huge pile of scrolls in ecstasy. I know it feels good to him, like sticking your hand into a burlap sack of dry beans. It always makes a rushing noise of paper scratching paper, but the Temple, while solemn overall, is still a busy place, and I let him indulge in this tactile pleasure. A couple of times when it’s been less crowded, the paper rustling echoes, and in my hyper-parenting state, it seems to disrupt the occasional local who’s stopped in to pray. At these times I stage whisper “Jamie, go ahead and pick. You can only have one.”
This seems to be the closest thing to regular religious outings I’ve embarked on with Jamie. I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and was quite active in the church when I was younger. I started singing in the church choir, marching myself and my little brother to practice on Thursday afternoons at Holy Faith in Santa Fe. Later, I served as an acolyte and attended a church camp every summer. I loved the music, and maybe I loved the ritual of the mass, or maybe I just found it boring. Whichever it was, it left an imprint that I’ve walked around with forever. I don’t call on it often, but it’s there if I want to access it. I liked watching Father Campbell turn his back from the congregation, lifting up the chalice to the cross, and then knocking the leftover communion wine back until the bottom of the chalice was pointed toward the vaulted ceiling.
My husband Jim was raised in the Catholic Church, and attended Catholic school for much of his primary education. He remembers the knuckle raps and getting pulled around by the scruff of his collar by nuns. Although Jim has volunteered at the Catholic Worker on and off on East 1st Street, he’s never become a part of a congregation in the 20-plus years that he’s lived in the city.
So when I passed by our bathroom tonight to check on my now seven year old, who was taking a bath, I was more than a little startled to hear “[murmur murmur] and keep us from sin at the hour of our death…[murmur murmur]… pray for us sinners… pray for us sinners…” was he saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub?
Jamie has been a part of a unique special education program that uses the only inclusion model in the city; they house themselves in the Catholic schools, where they’ve been welcome. Full inclusion for Jamie is a great thing. He gets to be in a room full of “typical” kids, for the first time in his little life. I see him gaining confidence on the playground, in reading, and now, in his faith, which is not cynical and fractured like my own. In short, he’s happy. To pull him out of religion because of my ambivalence feels selfish; after all, he was learning about every holiday under the sun in his last class’s diversity curriculum. Why should this be different? He comes home and tells me he held hands and sang songs in church, and it was beautiful.
“Hey Jamie, whatcha doin?”
“Do you want to hear my favorite prayer?” he asks, pouring his bathwater through his red funnel and into a Curious George bucket. He went on to recite it, beautiful as a child’s prayer would sound. I felt guilty for the cocked eyebrows I must have worn, and the sneer on my face. Why should a kid be referring to himself as a sinner? So what if he didn't eat the second half of his ham sandwich at lunch? And why did he come home with a drawing of a crucifixion, replete with a guy holding a sword, leaping out of red flames like a superhero, and an angel hovering above in a cloud, during his very first week of religion class?
I haven’t given Jamie religion in his young life. He’s gotten tastes of it, sadly, at funerals. We’ve had talks about god and spirituality, and I don’t dismiss the idea to him. I have painted a picture of, probably, agnosticism with Jesus as an avatar who did a lot of people a lot of good. I skipped the parts about him rising from the dead, and at this point he has no idea what a Virgin is anyway. When I went to church, I always felt like there was a line drawn in the sand between the language of the Episcopal and the Catholic masses. Catholics, it seemed to me growing up, were far more interested in reciting the things we couldn’t explain. They talked about the Virgin thing. They prayed to relics, boxed up and treasured, whether a tooth of poor, tortured Appolonia, or a fiber from a shroud held by Veronica. There were no confessional boxes at Holy Faith Parish. Sin was a word used in prayers, but not something referred to about ourselves in our daily lives.
This isn’t something I feel like I can summarize with a kicker. It’s going to be an ongoing process, I think, of his attending classes, becoming a part of the one community who would take him, and who understand his daily struggles and challenges in the classroom. I’m grateful to them for giving him this safety, but it’s still strange to hear my only begotten son saying the Hail Mary in the bathtub.